Hydraulic Fracturing or Fracking
Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a process of drilling for natural gas trapped in shale rock. A deep well is drilled into shale deposits and millions of gallons of water and a chemical cocktail are pressure-injected to fracture the rock and release the gas, which then flows back up via the same well.
It takes up to eight million gallons of water each time a well is fracked. Approximately 40,000 gallons of a toxic chemical cocktail is injected into the ground along with the water during each frack. In some cases, the resulting waste fluid is left in open air pits to evaporate, releasing harmful VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) into the atmosphere. However, 50-70% of the fluid used is not recovered but instead left in the ground. In some instances, both the toxic chemicals and resulting methane gas may leach out and contaminate nearby groundwater. Fracking is exempt from the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act. This exemption has been referred to as “The Halliburton Loophole” and was introduced at the request of Vice President Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton, in 2005.
The extent to which hydrofracking does or does not contaminate ground water or the air depends on many factors:
- Local geology, e.g. how do geological structures affect migration of gas or fracking fluid?
- State regulations, e.g. Are the regulations appropriate for that state and/or locality?
- The ability of a state to enforce its regulations, i.e. is there adequate funding for inspection and enforcement?
Every form of energy production has its risks and downsides. Although power plants fueled by natural gas do emit the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, they don't emit the toxic pollutants that coal fueled plants do, e.g. mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. Depending on local geology, regulations, and adequate enforcement, fracking does not need to be opposed in every instance. It is up to concerned citizens to assess the risks of fracking in their city, state, and/or region. In addition, regulation and enforcement are much better in some areas than in others. Again, it is up to concerned citizens to determine if they are adequate in their city, state, and/or region. If regulations and enforcement need to be improved, though, the time is now. In most localities, fracking is relatively new which means the regulations, enforcement mechanisms, and necessary funding are being created now. It is much easier to change the policies now, while they are being created, than it will be later, after they have been approved and put in place.
In some areas, methane concentrations are seventeen times higher in drinking-water wells near fracking than in other wells. The people who live nearby drink from these wells. There have been documented cases of sensory, respiratory, and neurological damage due to drinking contaminated water. Fracking disproportionately affects rural and poorer areas. It is unjust that a smaller group of people suffer health consequences from fracking so that the rest of us can benefit from the natural gas.
- Scientific American Editorial, 'Safety First, Fracking Second'
- Scientific American, 'The Evolving Truth about Fracking for Natural Gas'
The Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing the effects of hydraulic fracturing on the environment. Until that review is finished and its findings and recommendations published, here are several actions to consider taking in your state or region:
- Advocate for the FRAC Act which would repeal the Halliburton exemption and allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act at fracking sites.
- Advocate for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until the EPA or its state equivalent have reviewed the environmental impact of fracking
- Advocate for better regulation, e.g. Until May 19, 2011, waste fracking fluid was allowed to be discharged to rivers through municipal water treatment facilities in Pennsylvania.
- Advocate for adequate funding for enforcement of existing state and federal regulations
The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has endorsed the organization Stop the Frack Attack. Please visit their website to learn about opportunities for education and advocacy
For more information contact environment @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Wednesday, February 27, 2013.
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